Enter at Your Own Risk: Fires and Phantoms is the second installment in editor Dr. Alex Scully’s horror anthology series to be published by local indy press Firbolg Publishing. The common thread running through the tales this time around is homosexuality, which may turn away some potential readers, but it should be noted that Dr. Scully manages to avoid the common editorial pitfall of pounding the reader over the head with her anthology’s thematic linkage at every turn by including a diverse selection of stories ranging from ones in which LGBTQ-ness is central to the plot to others in which it is merely implied.
Along with its main theme, Fires and Phantoms also carries on the theme of its predecessor, Enter at Your Own Risk: Old Masters, New Voices, by mixing in some rather excellent stories by older writers like Edith Wharton and Ralph Adams Cram. One can only hope that the addition of masterworks by authors from previous literary eras will continue to be a hallmark of the series going forward, although their presence does have the unfortunate effect of highlighting the unevenness of the contemporary stories that make up the bulk of the anthology.
Following a short introduction by horror novelist Robert Dunbar extolling the genre’s lack of literary status as a virtue that has granted horror writers the freedom to explore taboo subjects long before it was considered safe to do so in mainstream fiction (and an even shorter foreword by Dr. Scully), Fires and Phantoms starts off with “Alone,” a short poem by Edgar Allan Poe that evokes a certain sense of otherness and isolation that should help readers get themselves into the proper mindset to enjoy the stories to come.
However, the mood set by Poe’s work is spoiled somewhat by the first piece of prose fiction in the collection, “When You Are Right” by Robbie Anderson. The setup of Anderson’s story is interesting enough – a policeman working the night shift waits in the car while his partner patronizes a creepy house of ill repute – but it reads like a rough outline, rushing ahead to its conclusion without pausing to give the reader much in the way of interesting detail or characterization. Thankfully, the next story in the anthology, “Time for One More Show” by local Eugene author B.E. Scully, gets things back on the right track with a much more interesting tale involving a lesbian stripper who becomes enthralled by a seductive mirror-bound apparition, but the difference in quality from one story to the next throughout Fire and Phantoms is stark enough that it may prove an insurmountable annoyance to some readers.
Another peculiarity that detracts somewhat from the collection is the inclusion of three stories – “A Decent Cup of Tea” by Michele Cacano, “In the End, He Dreams” by Michael Meeske, and “Inheritance” by Richard May – that read suspiciously like romance stories that were only submitted for consideration because they happened to have ghosts in them. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad stories, but their lovelorn tone would be more at home in a Harlequin Romance novel than a gothic horror anthology.
That said, Fires and Phantoms includes far more good stories than bad, and only one tale in the second category (Chad Stroup’s “Prickle the Ivories”) truly sinks to the level of unreadably awful. Along with B.E. Scully’s salacious tale, other contemporary gems here include T. Fox Dunham’s supernatural Civil War story “Last Dance in the Rain,” Vincent Waters’ macabre tale of a devout, troubled husband “Promises in the Dark, Whispers at Dawn,” and Andrew Wolter’s surprisingly enjoyable re-imagining of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” coyly entitled “A New Heart That Tells a Tale.”
But as good as those modern stories are, the best ones in the entire anthology are the three oldest: Wharton’s compellingly understated “The Eyes,” Richard Hall’s ghostly trip through the history of LGBTQ literature “Country People” (which, fittingly enough, inspired the creation of this anthology), and the one story in the book I found genuinely disquieting on a visceral level, “In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Cram. Dr. Scully merits some applause for that last selection; Cram’s body of work as an architect may still be relatively well known, but his literary output has rather undeservedly fallen into obscurity over the years.
Again, its homosexual themes may put off some people, but the stories Dr. Scully has assembled here are by no means just for LGBTQ readers. It’s far from perfect (what anthology is?), but if you’re a fan of gothic horror, Fire and Phantoms does enough things right to justify picking up a copy on your next visit to the bookstore.